The ‘X for Y’ high level concept gets bandied around a lot these days, and whilst Uber for…cats/dogs/washing machines/insert just about anything here has become something of a cliche it’s still a useful proxy to get a concept across in just a few words.
I’ve become increasingly interested in the future of work over the past few months, coupled with a long-term fascination of how city spaces are utilised for creative and leisure pursuits. The union of these two areas is the workspace sector, in particular co-working, and inevitably the behemoth co-work company called WeWork.
The company has grown to such an extent that I’ve heard founders describe their business as ‘WeWork for…’ (maybe to be ‘the X’ is now a vanity metric?)
There was a bit of kerfuffle when one of the company’s pitch decks was (allegedly) leaked, and more noise when they had to downgrade their earnings projections a few months later.
I’m not going to delve into the workings of their business model in this post (although you can check out the slide deck above for some insights), but I do sense that the co-working sector is starting to mature for a few reasons:
- More institutional money is coming into the sector
- Disrupted incumbents are reacting more forcefully
- Larger co-work members/customers are looking at building their own competing services
- Numerous small competitors are offering differentiated alternatives for underserved customers
There’s no reason to strongly believe these factors are going to hit a company like WeWork particularly hard in the immediate term; arguably the small competitors are the least threatening on paper, but it’s them who are the subject of the rest of this post.
Sector centre points
As a child of advertising I often get my attention caught by well-designed, snappy ads out on the street. Last week I cycled past an unremarkable building at the borders of the City and Shoreditch districts in East London, and noticed a new company had taken over the ground floor.
Rise is a new space created by the banking behemoth Barclays and it’s aimed squarely at being the hub for Fintech in London. Whilst it’s a smart although hardly surprising move, something that may raise a few more eyebrows is the opening of another sector-specific space a mile or two further East.
The founders of The Rattle are aiming their focus specifically at the music industry; a big part of the huge contribution the creative industries make to the UK economy, but an industry that has seen more than its fair share of pain, disruption and dislocation. The Rattle plans to connect both musicians, industry and technologists around workspaces that encourage collaboration and curiosity, with a sprinkling of Silicon Valley’s best practices baked in for good measure.
I’ve spent some time with The Rattle team over the past few months and I’m excited to see them launch this summer — there’s certainly an opportunity to provide an authentic hub for the broader music industry that’s independently-minded, genuinely collaborative and also commercially savvy.
Meanwhile, down by the river the city’s development agency London & Partners run a workspace with The Trampery focused on the future of travel & tourism. It’s notable the space is positioned front and centre of the London & Partners offices; a bustling innovation hub to greet the international visitors who L&P hope will (continue to) invest in London.
The rise of the tribe
Having said all this, the growth of industry-specific workspaces isn’t anything particularly new and it’ll likely continue to grow in the near future. What’s a little more nascent but also very interesting to look at is the rise of spaces being developed around a more specific tribe or theme rather than a specific industry.
A few weeks ago I was in Barcelona and visited Apocapoc, the first workspace in the city with a core focus on sustainability. They don’t have a focus on the sustainable development industry per se, but the setup, approach and ethics of the space and its members is designed with sustainability first and foremost. Not many of the Apocapoc members work in the sustainability industry, but they all identify strongly with being members of a tribe where those values are at the core.
The Apocapoc team told me about their plans to open a new space in the burgeoning arts & creative district of the city, complete with vertical farming, radio station and nursery. It’s going to be interesting to see how they’ll be able to grow their tribe without compromising on the values that first brought them to people’s attention.
Just like the sustainability movement, over time we will see growing involvement in co-working from more traditional sectors as well as narrower niche markets and interest groups. From jewellery design to marine surveying, clusters will continue to spring up and evolve, with idiosyncratic spaces designed to feel just like home. I’m also interested to see if more workspaces around sector-agnostic themes or values start to appear; for people and companies wanting to increase diversity in organisations, or where an activity such as language exchange takes more of a central position in why people join a space.
The Third Place
Some of these spaces may move beyond work and will become the ‘Third Place’ — not home, not work, something in between. Members clubs like Soho House exist to serve this need at a broader level, and their recent Soho Works concept in London and Los Angeles is evidence of how the blurring of these lines will continue as Third Place providers move into workspaces, and workspaces aim to become the Third Place.
Over the last couple of years I’ve sensed gap opening up underneath the larger member club networks as they come under the pressures that both scale and corporate investors apply. I believe we’ll see more ‘third space’ offerings starting up with an aim to reach audiences that have so far been underserved by the larger players, as well as existing customers who are feeling disenfranchised as their Third Place doesn’t really feel like theirs anymore. Additionally, younger generations increasingly value experiences over physical products, and are far more trusting of something when they can see exactly how and where it’s made and delivered; this adds to the sense that niche providers may see great success in the future.
The future of the workspace revolution presents a lot of opportunity for community & tribe builders, plus real estate companies, developers and the hospitality industry. The challenge for all parties is to deliver a seamless experience that encourages collaboration, connection, and not to forget it — productive work.
The spaces we use to work, play, learn and create have become a big focus for me. I'm excited to see which tribes, sectors, crowds and clusters form their own hubs in the next year or two, and how they go about crafting the places, communities and conditions they need to thrive.